Leanne Ratcliffe embarked on a "100 per cent raw vegan diet". Within a month, her periods stopped. But instead of being worried, the 39-year-old Australian blogger was elated.
In fact, Ratcliffe – who goes by Freelee The Banana Girl on her YouTube channel –believes that "largely, menstruation is toxicity leaving the body”. Women experience heavy, painful periods, she said in a video post, because they have "a toxic body or have a toxic diet". That video has been viewed over 440,000 times.
A 21-year-old American blogger skipped her period for four to six months after going on a completely raw diet for four months, also believing that menstruation is about toxins leaving the body. "Your body doing dishes or cleaning up,” wrote Milliany Bonet. "If there is nothing to clean, there’s no reason to menstruate.”
Why do these women believe their periods are about toxicity? Didn't we learn about this in biology class? And how would, as Ratcliffe put it, a "100 per cent high-carb, raw vegan diet" actually stop Aunt Flo from visiting?
ANOTHER FORM OF BODY SHAMING
“It is a myth, in my opinion, that menstrual blood is toxic and dirty, and that if one does not have menses, the toxins are left in the body,” said Dr Christopher Chong, a gynaecologist from Gleneagles Hospital.
“Menstruation is a natural phenomenon due to hormonal changes causing the lining of the womb to thicken and shed. If there is little or no thickened lining built up in the womb, menses may not occur.” In fact, it is important for the lining to be shed regularly. “If not, this chronically thickened lining can cause abnormal cell changes, leading to cancer of the womb,” said Dr Chong.
Dr Jen Gunter, a US and Canada board-certified gynaecologist, shared Dr Chong’s view that menstruation is not a sign of toxins leaving the body. “This is a very dangerous idea and displays a complete lack of understanding of female biology and the human body in general."
She added: "Periods are not bad or filled with toxins. This trend is alarming because it comes from [people who have] no understanding of periods or even biology in general, and is just another form of body shaming.”
There is no scientific basis to the idea that a period indicates the body is shedding toxins, said Lauren Streicher, associate clinical professor of obstetrics and gynaecology at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine. “A menstrual cycle is natural. The purpose of it is to achieve a pregnancy. That’s it. Period.”
READ: When doctors downplay women’s health concerns
In fact, other than menopause and the use of the contraceptive pill or hormonal therapy, most of the factors that cause a woman’s period to cease are largely bad news. According to Dr Chong, they include eating disorders such as anorexia nervosa, extreme stress, malnutrition, and medical conditions including the abnormal production of thyroid hormones.
There’s even more bad news when a woman misses her period for an extended duration. “She goes into a menopause state with possible symptoms of hot flushes, mood swings, depression, low sex drive, night sweats, difficulty in sleeping, bone aches, vaginal dryness and painful intercourse,” said Dr Chong. “Bone loss will be escalated; the cholesterol levels will be worse.”
HOW DOES A RAW VEGAN DIET DO WHAT IT DOES?
By now, you might be wondering: Why does a raw vegan diet stop periods? First, some information on what such a diet entails.
As a subset of veganism, it includes fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, sprouted grains and legumes, but excludes all food of animal origins, meaning eggs and dairy products are out.
The “raw” part of the diet comes from eating food either completely raw or heated to between only 40 and 48 degrees Celsius to supposedly preserve its nutrients better. Instead of conventional cooking methods, raw vegans juice, blend, soak, sprout and dehydrate their food.
A study has found that amerorrhoea, which is the abnormal absence of menstruation, is a common finding in women following raw vegan diets, said Dr Chong, "as a result of nutrient deficiencies and often under-eating.”
“The researchers also concluded that the consumption of a raw food diet is associated with a high loss of body weight, and it cannot be recommended on a long-term basis.”
Sandra Lee, 35, is a vegan. She started the Raw Food Vegans – Singapore Facebook group in 2007, and says that while she is a proponent of the diet, “there are a lot of controversial claims about the results of a raw vegan diet and a lot of them are rather ridiculous”.
“I strongly believe that a raw vegan diet is good in moderation. It’s always good to have clean eating, either periodically or regularly,” said Lee, who is also a professional chef trained in plant-based cuisine. She has not, however, met anyone in Singapore who has stopped her period by going on a raw vegan diet.
If menstrual symptoms are making you wish you could put a stop to your period, you are better off getting your reproductive health medically assessed instead. Heavy menses, for instance, can be due to many reasons, said Dr Chong. They may be caused by fibroids (benign growths in the womb) or endometriosis, where the menstrual lining grows abnormally outside the womb, and causes pain and heavy bleeding during menstruation.
But to go on a diet so severe that it causes menstruation to cease – well, that pathway is through severe malnutrition, warned Dr Chong. Anyone thinking of this diet, he added, should be "very cautious" about it.